First Look: Lunacy Black Market

Paul Luna offers criminally low prices downtown

How long ago was it? Over 20 years, I think. Lulu, the city's Pre-eminent Foodie, invited me along to sample the food of a talented new chef she had discovered. The restaurant was Bice, a corporate-funded Italian spot in Midtown on Peachtree Street. The chef was Paul Luna, a native of the Dominican Republic.

I don't recollect the specific dishes we sampled that day, but I do remember being impressed by the eccentric play of ingredients, their clear flavors and a rather romantic, sensual quality to their presentation. The pasta was cooked truly al dente – too much so for some, and just right for others. That debate raged when Luna opened his own restaurant, Luna Si, on Peachtree in south Buckhead.

And that same debate came to define everything about Luna. His quirky personality and cooking were too much for some and entertaining to others – a typical response to provocative, talented people. He went on to open a series of still flourishing tapas venues – Eclipse di Luna, for example – and ultimately left the city, returning just recently. Does that sound like anyone else you know? Indeed, for a period, Luna operated a restaurant in the same space that Richard Blais later offered the city its first and most extreme tastes of molecular gastronomy. But Blais sports a fauxhawk. Luna has a pony tail. Blais is a TV star. Luna says he doesn't own a TV.

Luna returns to our city after biking across America with his beautiful mate of five years, Cynthia, whom he refers to as "my lovely one." The bike trip was partly to promote his bilingual children's book, Luna Needs a Miracle/Luna Necesita un Milagro. More on that another time. And you can see our blog, OmnivoreATL.com, for details of his plan to run for mayor of Atlanta.

Luna's newest Atlanta restaurant is his oddest ever. Lunacy Black Market (231 Mitchell St., 404-736-6164) is located in the rather seedy fringes of downtown Atlanta, amid a maze of one-way streets. I've visited twice – with two friends for lunch and with Lulu and two others for dinner. My only warning, besides giving yourself time to negotiate the streets and find a parking space, is to call ahead. Lulu and I both made earlier trips to the restaurant and found it closed. The evening I went, I found two members of the Guardian Angels in front of the building.

The menu is, expectedly, small plates, and the execution is clever. At lunch many of the small-plate items are served as – I love this – sliders. The prices are almost weirdly low. Nearly everything is under $2 at lunch and $3 at dinner. Obviously, after 20 years, Luna knows me and he's made certain that I've tasted just about everything on the changing menu of 12 or so dishes.

There are a couple of dishes that I recommend as absolute must-orders. One is the rice cakes – actually risotto creamy with melted cheddar and fried until crispy. The other is the chicken leg cooked with "cinnamon curry cardamon." Slightly sweet and faintly cumin-esque, the spices – especially the gingery cardamon – infuse the dark meat.

I'm also crazy about sliced lamb topped with collards that have a peppery bite. Look for chilies in other surprising locations, like shrimp cooked with EVOO and garlic. The sauce, which long outlasted the shrimp (which actually tasted like shrimp), was snatched from Cynthia twice when she tried to remove it. We dipped bread in it, as we did with the ginger-soy-sesame sauce that covered little Asian-style pork ribs. The same ribs, without the ginger sauce, are served with tangy mint leaves. Believe me, they beat the hell out of your mama's mint jelly. The lunchtime slider made with the latter's ingredients was my favorite.

The only dish approaching typical entrée proportions during my evening visit was a whole mullet roated with EVOO, spritzed with lemon and lime. Mullet is distinguished for being the only fish with a gizzard and, of course, for giving its name to the world's ugliest haircut. The dish was a mixed success at our table. The creamy flesh seemed a bit undercooked at places, but I liked it very much. Considering its price, just under $14, you might want to skip it, but I found it a nice break from the intense meat dishes.

The evening's rather ordinary antipasto plate, with some cured meat and olives, was not as satisfying as the soup I had at lunch – a creamy brew of pureed chickpeas with bits of crispy pork. The only dish that flat-out did not work for me was a salad of apparently undressed green and purple cabbage with gorgonzola cheese and toasted walnuts.

Desserts are simple, but then they cost next to nothing. I've tried the chocolate chip cookies – who can resist one of those? – and sliced Granny Smith apples drizzled with salty caramel sauce. A poached pear with red wine syrup was also available at dinner.

The look of Lunacy Black Market recalls the early days of Eclipse di Luna. There are some upholstered sofas, along with folding chairs and wooden tables. Wood cabinets warm up the room, whose walls are hung with some interesting art, a few pieces of which allude to the days of the Civil Rights Movement.

This is the kind of place that wants you to drink wine, but the restaurant does not have a pouring license. So carry your own wine.

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